In an event that could be completely predicted, last week’s local elections have seen an average turnout of between 30% and 35%, almost unchanged from last year’s. The now-traditional question of why people do not vote in local elections will be asked once again.
There is a stunning lack of knowledge about local politics. Almost nobody knows to which party their councillors belong, never mind their names. I asked a few people here in Birmingham, all of whom regularly vote in local elections, and most weren’t sure how often elections take place, how many candidates per ward there are, or even which party is in control of the city council. (The trick question was when I asked whether they planned to vote in this year’s election: there are no elections in Birmingham this year, but nobody knew this). This admittedly unscientific straw poll reinforces what is a common belief, that local elections simply aren’t important in most people’s minds, at least important enough for people to know things about them.
There are other posited explanations: a more mobile workforce means that people are less likely to take an interest in local politics; the fact that local politics is more widely considered to be corrupt or more wasteful than national politics; the safe-seat situation depressing the belief that a person’s vote actually counts for anything. Everyone has their own reasoning, and there have been many things written both in academia and in the media.
One way we can try to see whether these reasons are factors is by-elections. If people voted based on perceived importance of the elections then by-elections should see similar numbers of people turn out to vote: the reality is very different. It is rare for more people to vote in by-elections than in the previous general election, with only fourteen British by-elections having increased turnouts since 1945, compared with the same number of British by-elections taking place in the current parliament alone. In those latest elections, turnout was down by about 20% on the general election, bringing it to an average of 37.2%, a typical local election turnout in recent times. In case one thinks this is a fluke, turnout during the previous parliament in by-elections was down by 15% on the previous general election.
My personal theory is that it is media coverage, or rather the lack thereof, that influences whether people vote. Before a general election there is near-blanket coverage, ensuring that everyone knows about the election, knows when it is, and has some idea of what the main parties claim to want to do should they be elected. Before a local or European election, however, there is very little in the way of media coverage from the national television networks, the source of most of the nation’s news, and believed by people to be the most trustworthy. The local newspaper industry is dying quicker than the national newspaper industry, and local television is consistently unwanted (although that isn’t stopping the government from trying again, so there is no real help from these quarters. The national media are neither interested nor really able to focus on local issues, and these issues become marginalized. Faced with a dearth of information and a lack of interest from others, we stop considering local elections, European elections, by-elections, and so on, and they do not even register in our minds. This third of the population that votes in general elections but not local elections suffer from a kind of local disenfranchisement, where they do realize that they should vote, but the reasons seem to get lost when they need to vote for something that doesn’t appear in the headlines on TV.
I’ll finish with one more possible reason: what if the general election fills many people with a spirit of camaraderie, that the country is going out to choose a government? If that’s the reason that some people vote only in general elections, then it will be very difficult to convince them otherwise.
David Craven is a Royal Society Research Fellow and Birmingham Fellow in the School of Mathematics at the University of Birmingham. His interests are primarily in mathematics, although branch out into chemistry and social choice theory.